“Be honest with yourself about your motives for learning Chinese. No matter what anyone tells you, fluency takes time. So, be patient. Set and revise realistic goals which build on past successes.”
Set aside a couple of hours and write yourself a letter outlining your motives for learning Chinese.
- Think about the all of the benefits and costs of learning Chinese. Don’t just copy this list from some website, personalize it to your situation.
- Define your goals and be detailed about what you want to achieve: long term and short term.
- List out all of your fears about learning Chinese and the things that you believe will be your biggest challenges.
- Think about how you learn and what skills you want to develop (speaking, writing, reading?)
- Include some inspirational words. This will keep you motivated when you get frustrated.
- Don’t be afraid to revise the letter or write a completely new one if your situation changes and you find new things that motivate you.
- Instead of writing a letter, sit down with a friend, family member, or significant other and talk about your language goals.
- Record this information in a journal, as a vlog, or on your personal blog.
Tip in Practice (True Story)
I wrote a letter like this before I started law school, and pulling it out during frustrating moments really kept me on track. This type of letter won’t work for everyone, but it’s worth a try if you find yourself getting stuck or if you lose sight of why you are studying Chinese in the first place. Think of this as a brainstorming session. You’ll probably be glad that you did it.
The fluency question… How long will it take me to learn Chinese?
Answer: It depends.
The two most mainstream views on learning Chinese are:
- Self Defeating View: Chinese is really hard. The tones are impossible to master. I’ll never be able to write to save my life, so why even bother. Few English speakers have learned it. Those who have must be geniuses.
- The (Partial) Scam: If I follow all of the advice on a particular website (including buying books, materials, etc.) I’ll be able to speak any language “fluently” in only a few months.
I find both views to be complete and total crap. Obviously!
Yes. Chinese is unique and very different than English. Chinese has tones; it has characters; many ideas just don’t translate back and forth between Chinese and English; and so on. But a considerable number of native English (or ESL) speakers have mastered Chinese, and currently live, work, and study in Chinese speaking countries with no problem.
There’s no reason you can’t master the language as well. But I think the hardest part about learning Chinese is managing your expectations about the language and the learning process.
First, you have to be honest with yourself about why you’re learning Chinese and what you want to get out of it. What’s your end goal? This won’t be the same for everyone who studies the language.
- Are you a heritage speaker trying to get in touch with your roots?
- Do you want to travel around Asia?
- Are you trying to work in a Chinese speaking country in a particular profession?
- Are you learning because of a boyfriend or girlfriend (or to impress that hottie who sits next to you)?
- Do you just want the personal challenge?
- Are you trying to build your resume?
- Do you want to read books, watch movies, or listen to music in Chinese?
Maybe you fall under a couple of these categories. Regardless, each end goal requires a different process. Someone who just wants to casually travel around Asia won’t need to spend nearly as much time studying as someone who wants to work professionally in a Chinese speaking country. The study materials available to each person (including potential language partners – parents, girlfriends, coworkers) may also be a lot different. So one-size-fits-all “fluency websites” won’t help you. If you really want to learn, you’re going to have to do a lot of work thinking through the “whys” and matching them up with the “hows.”
Second, pay for good materials, but don’t pay for advice. There are enough people willing to give their stories about their experiences for free. You just have to be smart enough to figure out whether someone’s advice applies to your situation. But then again, you’d have to do that whether you paid for it or not.
Third, if something you’re doing isn’t working, scrap it and try something different. Keep trying different things until you find what works for you. And then, occasionally venture out and make sure you’re not missing something better. Trial and error takes time, and is occasionally painful. But the results are amazing!
Fourth, don’t be afraid to give yourself a tangible reward for accomplishing a goal. For example, treat yourself to boba after you finish writing a short story all in Chinese or take a trip to Taiwan after you pass Chinese 2.
Hopefully, you’re like me and you will discover that you love Chinese and you want to speak it for the rest of your life. In that case, build a good foundation and enjoy the ride.
- Letters are tangible. You get to look back on them when you need to be reminded of your goals.
- This type of planning helps you focus. It may guide you towards your ideal study plan.
- If you have a private tutor, share these goals with her. It’ll help her structure your lessons better.
I’ve been studying for so long already. It doesn’t matter where you are in the process. If you can’t articulate why you started learning in the first place (or why you are learning now), maybe it’s time for a reminder.